What You See Isn’t What You Get – How Survivorship Bias Screws You IRL

One of the best things about teaching (and learning) research methods is learning how to accurately see what is actually going on around you.

I mean, it seems like it should be simple. But that’s exactly why these errors are so damn pervasive – and they effect us in our everyday lives.

Take survivorship bias. The Wikipedia definition is straightforward:

Survivorship bias or survival bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. This can lead to false conclusions in several different ways. It is a form of selection bias.


Not sure how that impacts your daily life? Let me share an example with four hobbits.

Our four hobbits – Tosseye, Glenfoot, Brookby, and Garnhill – all make widgets. They can make the same number of widgets an hour. Each of them, being mere mortals, makes one error an hour in their widgets. Each of them can also (but doesn’t have to) check and catch three errors per hour.

But the only hobbit who does check for errors is Tosseye. The others figure it’s good enough, and leave it be.

So here’s what ends up happening:

By the end of each hour, Tosseye – who is actually being a good teammate and worker – has caught the errors the other three have made… but misses the one error they made themselves. (It’s always harder to catch your own mistakes, right?)

Their boss – er, Frodo, I guess – does not see where Tosseye has actually lowered the error rate on the factory line. Instead, Frodo only sees that Tosseye keeps making errors. When Tosseye says something like “But I’m catching other mistakes!”, Frodo inevitably dismisses it as making excuses for Tosseye’s poor performance, and fires Tosseye.

This is how survivorship bias – and not recognizing it – will completely screw you up in the real world. By not pausing to actually question the data you’re getting – and where it’s coming from – you’ll end up with a result that makes things even worse than they were before.

Think about that – and where it happens in your workplace – over this Labor Day (US) weekend.

Featured Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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